Features

The Tasmanian Veranda

November 11, 2009

Helen Norrie and Geoff Clark examine Tasmanian projects that create a place “in the sun and out of the wind”.

There’s a strange business that goes on in Tasmania, in the form of a little known and curious relationship with the north of the north island. Tasmania seems to be full of Queenslanders who hate the heat, and if you ask enough questions you may be surprised to find the inverse situation in Queensland. One theory is that both places offer a similar lifestyle, with the main difference being 15 degrees in temperature. So, as two Queenslanders (from Townsville) completely enamoured with the advantages of the lower latitude, we offer our particular insight into the architectural response to climate on the little isle.

Although the climate varies around the state, generally there are large diurnal differences in temperature in both summer and winter, which means that places of relative comfort can be generated by exploiting certain conditions. The Tasmanian-Queensland dichotomy informs an architectural strategy, articulated most succinctly by Tasmanian architect Leigh Woolley, who describes a key aspect of the local architecture as the inverse response to climate to that practiced in the northern states. Woolley observes that while the Queensland veranda is a key element of northern architecture that creates a place “out of the sun and in the wind”, the “Tasmanian veranda” needs to provide a space “in the sun and out of the wind”.

The combination of the extraordinary landscape of Tasmania and the relatively low density of most urban centres means that very often architectural commissions are located on sites with either a fantastic aspect or a great prospect, but not necessarily both. As a consequence tricky strategies are frequently devised in order to manipulate a building that can orient to both the ideal climatic aspect and the generous and enticing views. To add to the mix, the unseen element is the wind, which can alter direction throughout the day, transforming the comfort gradient of sites.

Three basic rules of passive solar design are key to ecologically responsible design (ERD) in this climate: insulation, orientation and compartmentalisation. While each of these requires little explanation to this audience, it is interesting to examine how these strategies play out in some recent work. A recent exhibition of Tasmanian architecture ‘Un-packing Architecture: Beyond Style and Fashion’, displayed 25 projects by 21 firms and this survey revealed a striking similarity between buildings. In these projects a shared concern with design for climate and response to place is underpinned by a consistent modernist concern for space, light and materials. While each project responded to different conditions and each provided different strategic approaches to the ordering of the house, the spatial qualities of all of the projects were remarkably similar. Each provokes questions that are worth considering in relation to these rules of passive solar design.

From photographs, the projects give the impression of unrestricted open-plan spaces, however an analysis of the arrangements of these buildings reveals subtly different approaches to compartmentalisation, and a range of strategies to deal with the orientation of the house on the site. A set of these projects is presented, including the Arm End House by Stuart Tanner Architects (winner of the 2009 Tasmanian Chapter AIA housing award), in order to discuss design for climate and response to place, in Tasmania.

Arm End House, Stuart Tanner Architects

The Arm End House is located on a ridge of the South Arm Peninsula southeast of Hobart, where the Derwent River joins the d’Entrecasteaux Channel. The site overlooks the river to the west, providing a platform within the landscape that engages with the qualities and climate of the place. A simple strategy organises the building form east to west, creating a long edge that allows the bedrooms and living spaces to address the sunny northern aspect. The open-plan living room overlooks the fabulous view, which is delicately veiled by a stand of existing she-oak trees that screen the site from onshore breezes and give a wonderful sense of containment to the interior and exterior spaces.

The arrangement of the interior spaces conforms to logical circulation and spatial distribution strategies, and also establishes a series of outdoor spaces that can be occupied at various times of the day and year, depending on the different climatic conditions. The living space is ‘L’ shaped with a glazed sitting room projecting to the north, which is could effectively be described as Woolley’s “Tasmanian veranda”. This alcove helps to form a courtyard to the east that is protected from on-shore breezes. The fireplace provides a fulcrum around which all the living spaces are arranged, and its seemingly odd positioning is determined by a desire to promote sitting on the floor around this hearth, rather than have the space filled with furniture. This central hearth is inspired by and reminiscent of the campfire and may be enjoyed from within or without the building envelope.

A deck on the western side of the living room provides a second outdoor space, which is open on three sides and connected spatially and visually to the internal spaces. Both of the outdoor spaces are deliberately positioned so that the building can act as a windbreak, with either space more or less desirable depending on the direction of the prevailing breeze. These spaces conform to Woolley’s hypothesis, creating places “in the sun and out of the wind”, but additional screening beyond the building would strengthen this strategy, providing a more careful framing of these spaces. Increasing the degree of containment would lend a greater sense of privacy and protection to the interior rooms beyond.

Another key element of designing for this climate is the compartmentalisation of spaces to allow sections of the building to be heated as required. Within the modernist tradition of open-planned houses, this aspect is frequently overlooked, creating spaces that are difficult to heat, and sometimes challenging to occupy simultaneously by more than one group of people. It is difficult to gauge the optimum scale for compartments, as this is influenced by the heating system, insulative properties of the external envelope and the interior materials, as well as the orientation of spaces. The Arm End House has a total floor area of 154 square metres, with a single compartment for the living/dining/kitchen space of 97 square metres. The arrangement of this space allows for further compartmentalisation if required. Screens or curtains could easily be added to subdivide the space, while still providing the current connection between spaces and the outdoors.

A comparison of a range of other projects reveals a range in size of 55 to 129 square metres for the open-plan living compartments. Analysis of these houses is shown here, describing each project at the same scale. Diagrams of the houses provide a comparison of the size of the living/dining/kitchen component, and also speculate on the potential in these projects to allow a greater level of compartmentalisation. It would be interesting to gather data on the performance of these spaces, both in terms of actual energy consumption and the perceived level of comfort of each. In lieu of this, the diagrams provide a degree of qualitative analysis that reveals a range of strategies, which all seek a similar internal spatial character and a strong connective relationship to exterior spaces.

Woodbridge Residence, Design Inc

The Woodbridge Residence presents an interesting strategy for orientation and compartmentalisation. The compact plan creates a 55 square metre living space, but there is no internal connection to the sleeping spaces. The living space is separated from the sleeping spaces by an open courtyard, which allows the south-facing living spaces access to northern sun. The shape of the roof also assists in addressing the conflict between aspect and prospect, facilitating sun penetration into internal spaces.

Allens Rivulet House, Room 11

In the Allens Rivulet House, Room 11 place the kitchen at the centre, with the life of the house organised around the edges. A series of indoor and outdoor spaces are knitted together in a broad-weave matrix. The living/dining/kitchen is a single 85 square metre compartment, which arguably could be divided, separating the sitting space from the dining and kitchen, if desired.

Swansea House, 1+ 2 Architecture

An understanding of how the spaces beyond the building are central to the occupation of sites in the Tasmanian climate is developed to a great degree of subtlety in the Swansea House by 1+2 Architecture. The project (which is published in detail in AR108) is a set of three buildings that are arranged to allow the occupation of different parts of the site depending on the climatic conditions. The mantra of “in the sun and out of the wind” underpins each of these spaces, which are variously occupied at different times of the day and year as the sun and wind move around the site. The main house is 280 square metres, with a central living space of 129 square metres. This is space is not easily compartmentalised in terms of heating, but has a series of alcoves that provide sub-spaces that nestle up to the edges of the building and sit directly in the sun.

The comparative analysis shown here illustrates a consistent set of ideas that underpin Tasmanian architecture. Common to all these projects is the inclusion of spaces beyond the building that also conform to Woolley’s “out of the wind and in the sun” hypothesis, depending on the time of day and the direction of the breeze. Each project provides different conditions of habitation throughout the day and year, allowing the life of the building to respond to the qualities of the place. Each building creates generous connections between inside and out, exploiting the spatial characteristics of their settings and producing the perceptual effect of living only on a veranda, but in a particularly Tasmanian kind of way.

Helen Norrie + Geoff Clark are design lecturers at the University of Tasmania’s School of Architecture (where 50 percent of the teaching staff are Queenslanders). They have a shared interest in urban environments, particularly in regional areas and are currently working with the Launceston City Council to develop Urban Research in Design projects. Helen spent her childhood in Townsville, and fondly remembers that it was a cold day in winter if you still had your cardigan on at lunchtime. Geoff is also the director of Troppo Townsville, which he curiously continues to manage from Launceston.

  • timi porteus February 12th, 2010 7:13 am

    I am a native Tasmanian who did the usual ‘go north’ many years ago and now the sensible me has emerged and I have returned to Tas. By that I mean I own property here and return to my job in Qld for the winter. All very good. Being a devout West-Coaster and following the family tradition, I find myself back in Marrawah with a 5 acre house and land that is the only small block that faces west and north so I have the absolute amazing views of Mount Cameron to the north and Netley Bay to the west. The existing house is 1962 vintage in perfect condition that will convert very easily to a B&B holiday house so all I need now is a liverable shed on top of the hill to maximise on both views. This structure will be my studio and a place to park my mobile home, not a residence unless I subdivide the block. So, the task is to design the amazing studio with the elements and the view in mind.
    This is house number 10 for me and not for sale, a place to relax my weary bones and continue my lifestyle thus far.
    I will keep in touch.
    Cheers Timi


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